When NBA legend Michael Jordan and NASCAR star Denny Hamlin teamed up to create 23XI Racing, expectations were set high. Those expectations grew higher with the hiring of one of NASCAR’s most publicized drivers, Bubba Wallace. The sum of all parts made this one of the most hyped teams in racing.
Nine races (of 26 regular season races and 36 overall) into the 2021 season, Wallace sits 20th in the standings, without so much as a top 10 finish.
Jordan has been supportive through all of the season so far, even sending Wallace a text saying “Good job, kid,” following a 26th place finish this past weekend at Richmond Raceway. It’s does lead to a simple question: how much leeway will Wallace ultimately be allowed?
While the embrace is definitely a good sign, looking back to before the season started, Jordan seemingly highlighted some of the teams expectations for the year. “By the end of the year, I think he’s going to have an opportunity and probably will win at least a couple of races,” said Jordan in a feature that ran before the Daytona 500. Earlier in the sit down, he also said, “we don’t sign checks to losers.”
Despite it being normal rhetoric in sports, given that Jordan has had success in nearly every avenue of his career, losing is something that isn’t acceptable to him. An average finish of 21.56 isn’t a great look for Wallace, especially when his average position is 17.44 this season.
Wallace’s career numbers don’t necessary inspire much hope for a turn around, either. He’s already lead the most laps in his career this year, but has only nine top ten finishes and three top fives. He’s starting races better but he still bouncing around his finishes.
The one form of relief Wallace does have is Jordan’s partner, Hamlin. Having been in the business since 2005, he knows how to temper expectations, and keep them realistic.
This is a young race team that needs some development. While Jordan has been more than patient with his other property, the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, with mercurial sponsorship in NASCAR, it’s imperative that there’s some early success.
What happens if the success doesn’t come this year? Jordan and Hamlin may have to retreat, regroup and reorganize. If he shows any progress through the year, then Wallace may be back. If he stays stagnant, Jordan is the type who would go out and get someone who will win.
Wallace knows the pressure is on him to perform. “He’s paying attention. Yeah, he knows we’re not winning but he knows we’re continuing to make steps to make progress,” said Wallace. “Do we expect to win? Absolutely. But we have to do a lot of work in the meantime to get to that level. This sport is tough.”
It’s only a matter of time before the honeymoon is over. His clock is ticking, and once the hand strikes midnight, a verdict will have to be reached.